Living with Uncertainty

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It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings. 
― Wendell Berry 

The Questions

All of us are facing some degree of uncertainty. Some of our questions loom large. They are about our family, health, and the future. Now, more than ever, we must remember that those large questions are always there even when we are not in the middle of a pandemic. These big questions are epic questions; they make up the twists and turns in the unfolding stories of our lives; they make us human. As long as humans have walked the planet, they have grappled with uncertainty by making meaning through faith, community, ritual, art, and story. 

It is the smaller questions posed by our inner bespectacled, laser pointer, PowerPoint loving, call waiting, Skype hating selves that we clumsily bat away from our daily thoughts like small, black motivation-sucking gnats that can nearly drive us crazy. These are questions like, Will this spreadsheet really matter in two weeks when we are facing a huge budget crisis? Why does my co-worker still insist on this protocol, in spite of the fact that, we are both working from home and everything has changed? Should I still plan to go to that training on face-to-face communication? How am I going to make it through today with spotty internet, no cookies, and all this rain? These questions make us resentful and itchy. They plunder our stockpile of googly-eyed warm fuzzies attached to our concepts of meaningful work. They require a deep breath, a sense of humor, some teeth gritting and an endurance mindset. All of us face these questions at different points. Talking with others who have similar experiences can help to normalize our annoyances and find meaning in the day to day tasks which are part of our work.   

It is really the in-between questions that press us into anxious spaces. We all wonder when we will return to work, if we are going to face a furlough or a pay cut, if our work really is “essential” to the university. These are the questions that we must put into an envelope marked “For the good of the whole,” and lick closed. We work at an amazing institution that was founded in 1847. The enterprise of our institution is grounded in the public good. We are part of that public and all of us benefit from having institutions like the University of Iowa in our society. There probably will be a temporary contraction, but we must remind ourselves that it will be temporary, there will be better times, and that the ebb and flow is part of our history. We have weathered so much in the past. Our institution will continue to exist. Eventually our questions will be answered. We must be patient and keep the big picture in our hearts. 

The Answers? 

How can we continue to navigate every day in a way that ensures we are able to function and find meaning in the face of all these questions?  

  • First, we can remind ourselves that there will be answers to most of our questions. Don’t discount your own contribution. We can draw on our creativity to help shape the answers in conversation with others.
  • Second, don’t spend too much time in your head. Reach out to people you love and trust and let them know how you are feeling.
  • Stay positive and plan things that you can easily do every day. These might be small tasks like making a phone call, going for a walk, answering an e-mail, or doing the laundry.
  • Find a touchstone that makes you feel hopeful. Maybe that is a daily hug from your spouse, pet, or child. Maybe it is a photograph of your favorite time, people, or place. Perhaps it is a song that makes you feel like dancing in the kitchen, or a bite or two of something sweet or savory that brings a feeling of comfort and well-being.
  • Don’t ruminate on “what-ifs.” Write down or draw images of your thoughts, fears, and questions. Just putting them out in the open can sometimes help us to face what makes us anxious. Writing or drawing them can help us remember when we have faced that question in the past and answered it. The product does not have to be pretty. It can be a list, a doodle, or a jotting. You don’t have to make it precious. It can be on a napkin that you throw away, or the back of an envelope. It might make it more meaningful if it is in a form that begs our return like a journal. Keeping a record reminds us that our mental landscape shifts in our minds like we are watching it from a car window. Whatever works for you is the right thing in this case. In addition to fears and questions, record all of the questions and things you can answer, control, and know. Count your lucky stars.
  • Try to avoid having expectations for ourselves and others that are unreasonable. We can’t let shame and “should” dictate our feelings of self-worth. We all handle these uncertainties in diverse ways. What works for one person may not work for you. There are no right ways to deal with our feelings and fears. Don’t feel guilty that you have them. Be gentle with yourself and others and try to remind yourself that you have faced uncertainty in the past and managed. It’s ok to be afraid, to ask for help, to make jokes or make tears, and to cut yourself and others a bit of slack. This is a global phenomenon. Everyone is doing the best they can. Your contributions matter.
  • Lastly, find a way to let someone else know that their contributions matter too. Send a brief note, call them to say hello, bake them a dozen cookies and leave it on their porch with a note. We must value each other. In the end that is what matters the most.

Rachel Williams, Faculty Ombuds/Associate Professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
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